By Travis Fulton, Director of Instruction, TOUR Academies
Henrik Stenson wasn’t about to let this one slip away. So close to victory in four of his previous five starts — including a second-place finish at The Open Championship and a third at the PGA — Stenson held a precarious two-shot lead over Steve Stricker in the Deutsche Bank Championship on Monday when his approach shot on the 71st hole found the back greenside bunker. With Stricker up ahead putting for eagle, it was not the ideal time for Stenson to hit into his first bunker of the week.
A below-average bunker player by PGA TOUR standards (Stenson ranks 146th on TOUR in sand save percentage at 45 percent), Stenson needed to get the ball up and down from 31 feet to maintain his lead over Stricker, who birdied the 72nd hole. Stenson did one better, holing out for birdie and delivering the knockout blow that had been eluding him for months. The ball came out high and straight, bounced once, and then checked up to the perfect speed, slowly rolling into the cup to make the Super Swede a perfect 1 for 1 (100 percent) on bunker shots for the week.
What was interesting about this particular bunker shot was just how Stenson set up to it and created the necessary spin to trickle the ball into the cup. Most golfers, when faced with a relative short, delicate bunker shot, set the clubface wide open and adjust their stance so that their body is pointing well left of the target. The general rule of thumb is that the more you open the face, the more you have to open your stance so that the clubface is looking more down the target line. This is very important because the ball is going to start where the clubface is looking at impact. If you were to open the face, say, 45 degrees, and you set up square, then the face would be pointing well right of the target. If the face is looking 45 degrees to the right, then you have to open your stance line approximately 45 degrees to the left until the face comes back around and looks relatively at the target.
The problem with aiming so far left and opening the clubface is that it significantly reduces the size of the hitting surface on the clubface. Because the swing direction is so far to the left, or out to in, it exposes less of the face surface to the sand; therefore, there’s not enough force being applied to the sand at impact to project both the sand and the ball out of the bunker. What makes this open stance, open face setup even more problematic for the average golfer is that they already have a tendency to swing from out to in from a square setup. Open the stance and it only exacerbates this swing path error.
On Stenson’s knockout blow, his stance is relatively square and his clubface just slightly open. Where he generates the extra loft and spin is from his shaft angle, which is neutral (i.e., straight up and down) to slightly back (i.e., leaning away from the target). This forces the left wrist to become slightly cupped, moving the low point of the swing just past the ball towards the target, not opposite the left shoulder as it is on most shots. If the hands were leading and the back of the left wrist were flat, then the low point would be at his shoulder, but in a bunker shot the low point needs to be farther back. You don’t want the clubhead to enter the sand and keep moving down and down, because then it digs too much and you lose loft and spin. You want the clubhead to enter the sand and swing up sooner, like it’s cutting the legs out from underneath the ball. This creates a shallower divot and thumping sound, which in turn creates more spin.
The other reason why Stenson is able to create so much spin is because of the position of his sternum, which remains over the ball from address through impact. Since the clubhead has a tendency to strike the sand where the sternum is, it makes contact very close to the ball, minimizing the amount of sand trapped between the ball and clubface and thus increasing spin. As the clubhead enters the sand Stenson allows it to pass his hands much sooner than he would for a full wedge swing from the grass, and then he aggressively turns his torso through the shot, finishing with his hands very low.
One final thing worth mentioning is how Stenson maintains the flex in his left knee throughout the shot. The left knee never straightens, or dips. This is something that so many good bunker players do, and is critical if you want to maintain the correct depth to your divots and not hit your shots too heavy or thin.
Travis Fulton is the Director of Instruction for the TOUR Academies at TPC Sawgrass and the World Golf Village. For more game-improvement tips from the TOURAcademy instructors, on-the-spot club recommendations and 3D previews of each hole you play, download the TOURCaddie PRO app at www.pgatourcaddie.com.